Terror at Domodedovo

Moscow's elite leaves the country's ordinary citizens to fend for themselves as the war for Russia's inner abroad rages on.

We have been here before. Since the early 1990s, Moscow has been rocked by a number of terrorist attacks. In 1999, some 300 people died in a series of apartment house bombings which terrified the capital. Only last March, two women from the North Caucasus set off bombs in the Moscow metro, one of them at Lubyanka station, right under the headquarters of the FSB, Russia’s security service. Forty-three people died then.

The Domodedovo Airport bombing is the latest act of violence, probably coming from the same source – small, tightly knit terrorist cells operating from the North Caucasus which, almost a decade since the end of the Chechen War, is increasingly restless. Analysts talk about a civil war in the area, and sometimes refer to the region as Russia’s “inner abroad.”

The Domodedovo bombing follows the familiar pattern of terrorists choosing a soft target – in this case, airport premises outside the security area - and working their way into the crowd of people, for maximum effect. What is new now is the international aspect of the attack. Those who planned the violence chose Russia’s busiest international airport, at the time when planes from a number of countries, including Germany and Britain, usually arrive.

This likely suggests that besides the terrorists’ traditional objectives: instilling fear into the Russian people, and making them blame their government and security services for the lack of protection, there is yet one more – sending a message to foreigners that traveling to Russia could be dangerous. The terrorists may well be trying to capitalize on FIFA’s decision to award the soccer’s 2018 World Cup to Russia, as well as to the earlier decision by the International Olympic Committee to hold the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

The Russian government’s reaction has been predictable. Security has been tightened in Moscow and around the country, a criminal investigation launched, retribution promised. It may well be that, within weeks or months, those who planned this most recent act of terror will be hunted down and killed, as the masterminds of the March metro bombings were. But even before this happens, the security watch will gradually become lax again, ordinary Muscovites will get over their shock, and the country will move on – until the next time.

This has been the usual chain of events. But of course there are other options. One would call for a prolonged state of “security awareness” and placing more restrictions on any number of things, from opposition gatherings to news reporting. Being branded a “terrorists’ accomplice” may effectively gag many dissenters. This approach would also call for more sweeping anti-terrorist operations in the North Caucasus.

The other option would be closing the loopholes that the terrorists are using to get so close to Russia’s soft targets. One obvious goal would be to significantly reduce police corruption. So far, the police reform announced by President Dmitry Medvedev looks little more than an exercise in relabeling the organization, which, as the authorities have to admit, is rife with corruption and often incompetent and unprofessional. Another goal would be focusing the security services’ efforts on issues such as preventing terrorism, fighting drug trafficking and protecting the lives and well-being of ordinary people. The intelligence community would need to look for a different role model than accused-spook Anna Chapman (the most famous member of the “Illegals Program” spy ring deported from the United States last summer).

If the Russian leadership chooses the usual path, the Domodedovo attack may well contribute to the growing interethnic tension in Russia. Anti-Caucasus feelings, already in the open after the riots near the Kremlin last month, could rise even higher. Those ethnic Russians still living in the North Caucasus would feel even more uncomfortable. This is a scenario that Moscow would have every reason to avoid. Whether it can is another question.

The powers that be in Moscow need to do something, but what they cannot do is succumb to the temptation to use the terrorist threat for political gain. Within the next fourteen months Russians will be electing the State Duma and then the president. Stopping a handful of liberal politicians from demonstrating in central Moscow is doable, of course; but even a phony “state of emergency” would probably put Russia beyond the pale and scuttle the government’s effort to find Western support for the modernization drive.

In fact, there is every reason for the government to look at the situation seriously and do something this time—before it is too late. Ordinary Russian people cannot have failed to notice that, in their country, only the people who drive with security detachments around them, have not been to the Metro in the last 20 years and use private airports or VIP halls. What used to be state security and is now elite/regime security. It needs to become public security. What the terrorists are exploiting is the state of public insecurity. This is a truly explosive issue.